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My Cousin Rachel | Context

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Du Maurier and the Gothic Novel

Popular in the 18th century and into the 19th, the Gothic novel is a mystery or horror story, often combined with romance and featuring varying combinations of these characteristics:

  • eerie settings, including secluded castles or mansions—often medieval in style or period—thunderstorms, and dark, foreboding imagery
  • trapped young innocent
  • menacing, mysterious villain
  • supernatural elements such as ghosts, pseudo human creatures, or unexplainable events
  • a character's double

The Castle of Otranto (1765) by English writer Horace Walpole is considered the first Gothic novel; English author Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) created more interest in the genre, and other novelists followed suit to meet the public demand. In the first half of the 19th century, the English Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—contributed a deeper level of emotional reality to the Gothic novel, especially with the identifiable protagonist Jane from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). Other novels with strong Gothic influences include British writer Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Irish author Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Gothic novels also influenced American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and, pushing the limits toward horror, Edgar Allan Poe.

Du Maurier's novels Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel feature strong Gothic elements as well. Rebecca's success gave the public an appetite for more of the same Gothic-style intrigue involving an ingénue (naïve young woman), a sophisticated love interest, and a dead spouse. My Cousin Rachel was a satisfying counterpoint for her fans: the ingénue in this case is Philip, the dominant and more experienced love interest is Rachel, and the spouse affecting the plot from beyond the grave is Ambrose. These ingénues, though not trapped in a castle typical in Gothic literature, have limited power against the more experienced love interests, controlling possibly to the point of villainy. The spouses beyond the grave function as realistic versions of ghosts, haunting the living emotionally rather than spectrally. Both novels are set in Cornwall—a remote, mysterious, and isolated horn off England—in du Maurier's real-life house for 26 years, Menabilly—a dark crumbling stone mansion dating back to the 1500s.

Du Maurier's writing deviates from the traditional Gothic style in its absence of fantasy elements. In Rebecca, Rebecca's presence in the house, the mystery around her, and the other characters' memories of her create a supernatural feeling. In My Cousin Rachel, Ambrose's presence in the house, the mystery around his death, and the merged identities of Ambrose and Philip provide the eerie suspense. Du Maurier employs psychological monsters that lurk inside people, like Philip, provoked into a jealous and possessive rage, who uncharacteristically turn to violence.

Another Gothic element du Maurier uses in My Cousin Rachel is the double, which focuses on the dichotomy between good and evil. Much like Dr. Jekyll and his dark side Mr. Hyde, Philip discovers both he and his cousin Ambrose are doubles who look alike and share the same emotions. It's this passion, fear, and jealousy that cause Philip—and possibly both men—to act irrationally, and in Philip's case murderously.

Setting, too, is particularly important in Gothic novels. Cornwall is for du Maurier what the Yorkshire moors—grassy meadows punctuated with rock and bogs—were for the Brontës. Both regions create a feeling of isolation and impending danger. The physical distance from neighbors and towns creates tension and apprehension for the often friendless or orphaned protagonist. The imposing prison-like castle or sparsely occupied mansion, such as Manderley or the unnamed Ashley estate house, complete the Gothic setting.

Cornwall and Menabilly

In the southwestern corner of England, the peninsula of Cornwall is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Celtic Sea, and the English Channel. Because of its relative isolation, Cornwall maintained its own heritage, culture, and language for centuries. The Romans did not conquer Cornwall, and the Cornish fought off the Saxons, a Germanic tribe, for 500 years. Valued for its tin mines, Cornwall was placed under the rule of special courts during the Middle Ages, thus furthering its identity as a fiercely independent entity. Though the Cornish language mostly died out in the 19th century, place names remain unchanged. Its history reflects continuing success in preserving its singularity and keeping invaders at bay.

Du Maurier fell in love with the landscape and ambience of Cornwall as a young woman when her parents bought a vacation home in the harbor town of Fowey. The du Mauriers renovated the chalet-style structure known as Swiss Cottage and renamed it Ferryside, as it was steps away from the ferry. Du Maurier wrote her first novel, The Loving Spirit, in her bedroom overlooking the harbor. She learned about sailing and boats from local fishermen and hiked the cliffs along coast, sometimes in search of the abandoned—possibly haunted—mansion Menabilly, beginning a long-term obsession with the house.

Menabilly has been in entail to the aristocratic Rashleigh family since Elizabeth I's reign in the late 16th century, meaning the monarchy conferred the property on the family and its direct descendants only. An austere granite mansion covered in ivy, Menabilly was expanded with various additions throughout the years. Obscured by woods, Menabilly cannot be seen from the sea, enjoying a kind of protection from potential enemies. Thought by locals to be haunted, it boasted the skeleton of a soldier, discovered by workers in the 19th century, bricked up in a secret room.

Eventually du Maurier persuaded the owner, Dr. John Rashleigh, to rent Menabilly to her with the agreement she would fix it up at her own expense. Du Maurier raised her children and wrote several of her novels at Menabilly. The King's General was inspired by the Rashleigh family and the bricked-up cavalier. The family name Ashley in My Cousin Rachel is very similar to Rashleigh. She even entertained Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Menabilly—du Maurier's husband had worked for them since the end of World War II. When Dr. Rashleigh died, his heir wished to move into Menabilly, and after 26 years du Maurier had no choice but to move out. Ever mourning the loss of her true love and obsession, du Maurier reluctantly relocated to a cottage on the Rashleigh property, Kilmarth, where she lived out her remaining years.
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